Boyhood pals rock boat on Miramichi Bay
Friends show tough leadership in fishing war


[photo]`We really complement each other . . . My strength is during crisis. Brian is good at social mobilization.' [photo]

Toronto Star Atlantic Canada Bureau
Sunday, August 20, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. - The very first time James Ward met Brian Bardibogue, he drew blood. Ward was just a kid, up here on a summer holiday to visit relatives on his mother's reserve. Skipping rocks along the shore of Miramichi Bay, he hit Bardibogue in the back of the head.

``He came up wailing and crying and blood on his hands,'' laughs Ward. ``We've been fast friends ever since.''

Today, the two friends are an extraordinary political team that has accomplished what many others tried to do, and failed: They organized a revolt that threatens to forever change the balance of power between Ottawa and Mi'kmaq people.

Bardibogue, 31, and Ward, 32, convinced people here to ignore federal fishing regulations and set their own rules over a resource they claim as their own.

Midnight raids by armed fishery officials and a multi-million-dollar lure from Ottawa hasn't broken that resolve.

Neither side pretends any longer that this fight is about fishing lobster out of season. If Burnt Church grabs the right to regulate its own fishery, that will start a cascade of similar claims across the country as native people demand the right to control and profit by everything in the land, water and air.

Last week, Canada's highest ranking native leader, National Chief Matthew Coon Come, said Burnt Church was on the ``front line'' of native rights. It was Ward and Bardibogue who took it there.

``We really complement each other,'' Ward said recently during a brief break from the battle that he helped launch on the waters outside the window of his modest white home.

``Brian has a more flamboyant nature that appeals to certain people; I am the more serious, determined one. My strength is during crisis. Brian is good at social mobilization.''

They are strikingly different. Ward has a university degree in political science; Bardibogue dropped out of school in Grade 9. Ward is a former U.S. soldier, an intense man whose life is defined by his image of the honourable and disciplined warrior. Bardibogue is a notorious flirt, a snappy dresser and gifted speaker who can't stand still for more than a second and seems to take up twice as much space in the world as anyone else.

It was Ward who wrote the 100-page fisheries management plan that was at the core of this fight. It was Bardibogue who corralled the members of this reserve to vote in a historic referendum, driving his big black pickup around the dusty roads of this reserve, charming and cajoling friends and relatives back to the voting booth set up in the school gym.

There are similarities too.

Both men have white fathers. Both have spent years living in Massachusetts. Both became fathers themselves at a young age.

Ward grew up in Worcester, Mass., where his mother worked in a boot factory. He didn't move to Burnt Church until he was 12, when his parents split up.

He arrived here on the reserve an intense American patriot, an ambitious adolescent who had his life all mapped out; a career in the U.S. Army culminating in membership in the elite Delta Force.

In the meantime, he hung out with his best friend. Bardibogue remembers playing Dungeons and Dragons and bow hunting together. Ward remembers how they liked chasing girls.

At age 16, Ward became a father. He quit school for a year to earn money for the baby, then went back to finish his diploma. At age 18, he hitchhiked to Boston and joined the U.S. Army.

``I knew from the time I was a little child that I was going to be a soldier,'' he says. ``For many native men, there is a certain innate striving to be a warrior. The discipline and adventure of military life is very appealing to us.''

Ward was in the army for six years, first in the 9th Infantry and then the 101st Airborne Division.

In 1992, he put a bullet in his head.

It is not a story he likes to tell, for he does not think that most people will understand that it was honour, not anger or self pity, that drove him to it.

But the tale reveals a lot about him, about the depth of his commitment to his vision of a warrior's way of life, and about the sheer stubborn toughness of both his body and his mind.

It was Sept. 16, 1992. Ward had been unjustly accused of a crime and was in danger of losing everything he cherished most; his army career, his reputation and his honour. Then he found out that he might also lose access to his three kids.

He put a 9-mm pistol under his chin and fired. The hollow-point bullet pierced his jaw, went through his tongue, the roof of his mouth, up behind his nose and eyes and exploded in his forehead.

He doesn't remember pulling the trigger, but he remembers with perfect clarity everything after that point; how warm the blood was as it soaked through his shirt, how he fought not to lie down in the ambulance because his lungs were filling with blood, how he puked up bits of flesh and bone and teeth when he finally pushed off the medics and sat up.

At the hospital in Nashville, Tenn., his eyes were swollen shut and his tongue was mostly gone, so a doctor told him to answer yes and no questions by raising his right or left hand. When he told them, no, he couldn't breathe, they cut open his throat for a tracheotomy. It was only then that he passed out.

He doesn't think of the incident as a suicide attempt. He compares it to the ancient Japanese ritual of seppuku, in which a Samurai warrior who has failed his cause uses a ceremonial knife to disembowel himself. The ritual was reserved only for the warrior class, and was a moment not of shame or defeat, but of high honour.

Ward lost more than two litres of blood in the 17 minutes before he reached hospital. Doctors had to peel away the skin from his face and take out his eyes to reconstruct the bone and nerves of his skull. He still can't smell and he is blind in his right eye. He has 47 pieces of titanium in his skull.

Yet just 2 1/2 months later, Ward returned to his unit at full service. He had been cleared of the accusation that threatened his career and his family, but his eyesight no longer met army regulations. For his final four months in the army, he functioned as a sergeant, leading a recon team on manoeuvres night and day.


`For many native men, there is a certain innate striving to be a warrior. The discipline and adventure of military life is very appealing to us.'
- James Ward

Ward returned to Burnt Church after his discharge, stripped of his lifelong dream. He enrolled at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science.

Just as he was finishing university, a court ruled that native people had treaty rights to crown timber in New Brunswick. On reserves plagued by unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and suicides, the ruling sparked an unfamiliar, intoxicating season of hope.

Hundreds of Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people bought chainsaws and headed to the woods. By the time an appeal court overturned the ruling in April, 1998, people who had never worked before had tasted economic freedom and were willing to fight for their right to log on crown land.

It was a tumultuous time, with mass protests and blockades, and Ward's old friend, Bardibogue, was right in the thick of it. Bardibogue was a band councillor by then. He also had a logging company and served as a director of the native forestry group leading the fight.

After he was kicked out of school, Bardibogue had gone to work at a museum called Plimoth Plantation, near Plymouth Rock, Mass. He toured New England talking to students about the history of native people in North America and their first contact with Europeans. It was there he learned native history and refined the speaking skills that would be so crucial when he returned home.

Bardibogue met and married his wife in Massachusetts. He brought her back to Burnt Church when he was 21.

``I came back because my wife was pregnant and I was scared,'' he says.

A few years later, Bardibogue was appointed chief of police for the band. In 1996, he was elected to council.

Bardibogue was crushed when the movement to assert native logging rights collapsed as chiefs of individual bands signed agreements to limit native logging to certain areas.

``The chiefs sold us out,'' he says.

When the fishing issue came up last year, he was determined that wouldn't happen again.

Burnt Church's elected officials now support Ward and Bardibogue, but it wasn't always so. When Ward was invited to tell a United Nations committee on indigenous people about the fight in Burnt Church, the council refused to pay his ticket to Geneva.

Bardibogue helped raise the money and Ward went anyway.

``I am flat broke,'' Bardibogue says. ``They almost shut off the phone in my house. I have no money to buy more lobster traps. I have no money for lawyers. It is hard to do things when you have no money.''

Until just a few weeks ago, all the key leaders of this revolt were living on less than $300-a-month welfare. Bardibogue also gets a $7,000-a-year stipend as a councillor.

One of the most important aspects of this fight is how Bardibogue and Ward forced the federal government to deal with them instead of the band council.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Mi'kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy people have a treaty right to fish commercially. Once again, native people flocked to seize control of a natural resource, but this time they had the highest court in the land behind them. And this time, their fight would be with Ottawa, not Fredericton.

Bardibogue had a little white boat called the Freedom Won. He was one of hundreds around the region who bought lobster traps and set them in the water of Miramichi Bay.

Commercial fishermen, banned from fishing at that time, were outraged. The morning of Oct. 3, 1999, a flotilla of 100 boats sailed out from nearby Baie St. Anne and systematically destroyed 4,000 native lobster traps set in the bay. The raid sparked days of violence that saw two trucks, a house and a structure sacred to native people torched and one man beaten with a baseball bat.

Bardibogue left Burnt Church after the raid to reunite with his wife in Massachusetts.

``I was burned out, disappointed and heart-broken,'' he says of that time.

Ward stayed here and kept working, trying to build up support for a fisheries plan written and enforced by his own people.

In the meantime, bands around the region signed deals with the fisheries department. In most cases, the bands were given lots of cash, new fish boats and lobster and crab licences if they agreed to fish within the same regulations as non-native fishermen.

But there were complaints on reserves that the new wealth wasn't being doled out fairly. In several cases, band councillors turned around and sold the band's new quota to non-native fishermen. Men and women who had hoped to be fishing by spring bitterly watched non-natives take to the sea to fish their band's quota. In many cases, band councillors had a hard time convincing members that the money they got for selling the band's new fish quota was being used for the band's benefit.

In Burnt Church, Ward suggested everyone get an equal shot at the fishery. His plan called for allotting four tags to every man, woman and child on the reserve.

``Once people exercise their right, they will fight for it,'' he says. ``But they have to feel like they have a personal stake.''

Ottawa offered Burnt Church $2.5 million, five new fish boats, four new lobster licences with a total of about 1,200 traps and a slice of the lucrative crab fishery if Burnt Church would stop fishing lobster in the summer and fall, as they have done for many years. Ottawa also took away a licence to use 400 lobster traps at this time of year.

Miramichi Bay is a busy place. More than 240,000 traps are set in this fishing zone each spring. The reserve already held 13 licences for the spring fishery, worth about 5,000 traps. People here did the math and figured they were being offered a trap increase of less than 0.5 per cent of the regional fishery.

On Wednesday, Aug. 9, they turned down the deal. The next morning, a bald eagle circled over native fishermen as they loaded battered lobster traps on to old skiffs and dories in direct violation of federal authority. Bardibogue was the first back in the water, pushing the Freedom Won off the sandy shore just after dawn as reporters and supporters looked on. Ward, who does not fish, hopped aboard for the first symbolic ride.

Four days later, band members had dropped more than 700 traps in the water despite Ottawa's adamant demand that they be removed. Sunday night, fisheries officials moved in to seize the traps in a raid that turned violent when Bardibogue, Ward and others tried to stop them.

Fisheries officials used pepper spray on the fishermen, and Bardibogue says he was choked to unconsciousness and roughed up before he was taken ashore and charged with obstruction of justice. He says he dialed 911 from the Neguac jail to ask for an ambulance.

By the time his friend arrived in hospital, Ward had organized two barricades to close Highway 11, a regional road that connects Miramichi with the Acadian Peninsula.

The raid once again galvanized opinion here. Within a few hours, help had arrived from Listuguj, a Mi'kmaq reserve just across the Quebec border.

Listuguj has a long history with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Two decades ago, fisheries officials swarmed across the reserve in a dispute over salmon fishing. Today, every child on the reserve can recite tiny details of that raid, where their relatives were when officials surrounded the reserve, who was hurt, who was arrested.

Two years ago, Listuguj loggers set up barricades across a regional highway in Quebec in the fight over native timber rights.

Today, Listuguj patrols its own fishery with high-speed boats and well-equipped rangers.

Friday afternoon, Burnt Church band councillors, accompanied by Listuguj Chief Allison Metallic and Ward, finally sat down with federal negotiator James MacKenzie. It was the first time the two sides met face to face since the court ruling launching the fishing dispute. When they emerged three hours later, the federal government had agreed to use Ward's management plan as the basis for negotiation and to stop seizing native lobster traps as negotiations get under way.

Things may never be the same on the waters of Atlantic Canada.

Richard Gray, a councillor from Listuguj, says his band is unlikely to renew its agreement with the fisheries department this year. On April 1, fishing agreements with 29 bands will expire. Gray expects every band will now follow Burnt Church's lead and insist on at least some control over their own fishery.

Ward spent his days last week meeting with reporters, band councillors and nervous members of his community. He spent his nights pacing back and forth between the barricades, checking on the men and women who tended twin fires that blocked Highway 11.

``Brian and I are already talking about what issue we are going to tackle next,'' Ward says. ``Forestry is first, because that will be easy. Then it has to be drugs. We are losing a whole generation. It's time now for us to think about the future.''